Breaking Old Habits

“It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.” – Benjamin Franklin

There’s a saying that old habits are hard to break. Truer words have probably never been spoken. Breaking old habits seems so much harder than picking up a habit in the first place, don’t they?  Granted, supposedly it takes 21 days (or 30 days depending on who you listen to) for something to become a habit, but once it becomes a habit, breaking it can take a whole lot longer than 21 or 30 days. At least that has always been my experience.

Some of our habits are things we picked up at a specific point in our lives – a behavior or action we learned at one point in time. Others happen more on a subconscious level, such that we don’t even realize we have developed them into habits. Take for example what I share with my friends about myself and my life when we get together to catch up.  It isn’t something I ever really thought about to be honest, until my one, really good friend from college brought it to my attention not all that long ago.  She point blank asked me one day why I never really shared anything that was going on in my life – nothing real specific anyway, just very general, sweeping statements.  Why did I only share very general things and then proceed to focus on asking her how she was and what she was up to, never wanting to spend much time on me?  She said it felt like she was always the one doing the talking when we got together.

Again, it wasn’t something I ever really noticed or paid attention to and it certainly was not anything I was doing intentionally, but upon a little reflection and further conversation with her I quickly realized she was right. I didn’t share a lot of information about myself or my life when I was with her, or my other friends for that matter. When I spent some time later looking at why that might be I realized it was an unconscious habit I could trace back to my childhood.  You see I grew up learning things like, “children should be seen and not heard”, “when people ask you how you are you say you’re fine and leave it at that because they really don’t want to hear all the details…they really don’t care, they are just asking to be nice”, and “you have two ears and one mouth for a good reason…you should listen more than you speak”.  These lessons came from various sources in my life and they were consistent and persistent, so it didn’t take me long to internalize them.

My childhood mind processed those things in such a way that I learned quite unconsciously to keep most things to myself. It was what I was supposed to do, right? It was never meant to come off as rude or uncaring, or anything else for that matter.  It was just what I had learned, and it is therefore what I did out of habit for many, many years.  But now that my friend brought it to my attention, I am trying to be more mindful of my participation and engagement with my closest friends because they do care and are asking because they are genuinely interested in knowing.  It’s going to take me a long time, I think, to overcome that old habit entirely (after all I’ve been doing it for several decades at this point), but I keep plugging away at it because I know that in time, with a little perseverance, I can break that habit.

So why is it so difficult to change a habit? Well, simply put, our brains like patterns. Patterns help make us more efficient and our brain likes that.  Patterns help the brain streamline processes and go into autopilot when it comes to those things, thus allowing the brain to focus on other things that are not yet set into a pattern.  It’s all about efficiency.  So in order to break a habit we have break the patterns our brains have established and literally rewire our brains.

If you have ever tried to break or change a habit, you know firsthand how hard it can be. In order to make a permanent change, we may need to try something different (or sometimes even several different things before we find what works). We can’t keep trying to break habits using the same unsuccessful tactics we have always used and expect to get different results – if it didn’t work doing it that way the first time, then chances are pretty good it won’t work in future attempts either.  (Somewhere in the midst of that is the definition of insanity, I believe.)  The bottom line is you need a different approach.  A good formula for successfully breaking habits is to take small steps experimenting with one tactic in an attempt to break the habit followed by reflection on how well it is working, followed by either more of that same technique (if it is working) or a new technique (if the other one wasn’t working for you) – that’s the key for successfully breaking habits.  You just have to keep picking away at it.  It’s seldom quick and easy, but if you stick with it you can change your habits and thus change who you are and how you show up.

Our daily decisions and habits have a huge impact upon both our levels of happiness and success.” – Shawn Achor